For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life? Or what shall a man give in return for his life?
Matthew 16: 25-26
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ Mark 10:35-37
Virtually every family has anthropomorphized the family car by giving it a name and talking to it from time to time, often very harshly when it does not start right away. The Pixar people have carried this to the extreme in their delightful animated film in which they have created a literal car world. It is cars that do the racing, cars that jam the huge grandstands, and cars that provide the on-air commentary. The animators have done an amazing job of giving each car a distinctive personality and making the on-track racing scenes just about as exciting as the celebrated chariot race in Ben Hur. Even better, for Christians, is the script that raises so many points of character and behavior found in the Scriptures. Were I still serving in the pastorate, this is a film that I would use as the basis for a VBS curriculum, as I did for Babe, once it is issued on DVD—there is that much good material in this film!
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is the skillful rooky racer who is good at his sport, and if you don’t know it, he will be glad to tell you. He thinks he will win the race that is in progress as the movie opens, but winds up in a three-way tie instead when he ignores advice to make a pit stop to replace his battered tires. He will enter a three-way race in California to see who is the grand champion, his competitors being the elderly veteran King (voiced by the real racing driver Richard Petty) and Hicks (Michael Keaton), a cocky racer even more obnoxious than Lightning. Adult viewers will know where this story is headed—most will have seen the similar themed Doc Hollywood—but as the movie says so eloquently, it is not the goal but the journey in reaching it that is the most important.
Mack (John Ratzenberger), Lightning’s transport truck, is about the only friend that the racer has left. He has gone through three pit crews because of his arrogant attitude, telling one and all that he does not need a support team. One night Lightning becomes separated from Mack, and after many a wrong turn on back roads, winds up at the run-down town of Radiator Springs, once a popular stopping-off point on famed Route 66, the route that led from Chicago to the west coast, made famous in story and song. Lightning manages to tear up the main street’s pavement. He is caught and sentenced to restore the street as his community service project. It is while working at this hot task that he begins to become acquainted with the town denizens and slowly begins to change his outlook on life.
The citizens include Sarge (Paul Dooley), the Jeep who enforces the law; Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), who keeps secret from others that he was a three-time national racing champion; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the somewhat dim-bulbed tow truck who becomes Lightning’s best friend; Ramone (Cheech Marin); Fillmore the hippie VW van (George Carlin); the sleek Sally, a Porsche (Bonnie Hunt); and more. It is Sally and Doc who influence Lightning the most, helping him to see both the beauty of the country and that of others in a fresh way. It is no accident that Lightning, his attention fixated only on the racetrack and winning, does not have headlights. Again Pixar has given us a film for young and old to enjoy at their level of understanding, and like a good New Testament parable, invites us to question our old accepted values, and maybe change them for the better.
1) A good song to have playing as the group gathers: Simon & Garfunkel’s “59th Street Bridge Song,” with its line, “Slow down, you’re moving too fast…” 2) What kind of a “person” is Lightning at the beginning, claiming, “I’m a one man show”? What is his chief goal in life? How can such a goal warp our character? How is Lightning like the two disciples who asked for special status in Jesus’ kingdom?
3) Like real life racecars, he is stripped down for racing on a track, not driving amidst road traffic. Yet, how is his lack of headlights symbolic of the condition of his character or spirit?
4) This is a film in which there are scenic backgrounds that are far more important than in most animated films: what do the beautiful vistas contribute to the renewal of Lightning? How does Sally help him to see the beauty around him? Why did she leave Los Angeles and settle in Radiator Springs?
5) Do you have similar feelings of nostalgia when you think of the “good old days”? But back in those days of two lane roads, how did you regard the coming of the turnpikes and interstate system? What do you think of the comment, “Cars didn’t drive on a road to make great time, but to have a great time”? Remember the phrase “joy ride”? When was the last time this applied to one of your car trips?
6) If you stay within the speed limit, what soon happens around you in traffic? How much time do you think that those driving ten or fifteen miles over the speed limit actually save? On a trip have you sometimes driven off the interstate and taken a “back road”? What did you see that you would not have had you stayed on the speedway?
7) Another film that has a scene teaching a similar lesson of slowing down so you can see is Smoke, in which the proprietor of a Brooklyn tobacco shop teaches a writer to slow down and see the details of a series of mundane photographs.
8) Compare the finish of the great race to that of another film that teaches a similar lesson: Akeelah and the Bee. How is Lightning’s decision similar to Matthew 16: 25-26?